Winterball Heats Up

Grading baseball's off-season moves

Pssss. That scent you smell is the aroma of flesh being singed against the hottest of hot stoves. Nobody's said it, but this is the best crop of free agents ever. On the market this off-season were five of the top 10 hitters in the game and four of the top six pitchers who don't cash paychecks from Ted Turner. Not to mention a recently minted MVP (Ken Caminiti), a guy who once ran up a hitting streak longer than Joe D.'s (Robin Ventura), and someone who not long ago was regarded as the best player in baseball (any guesses?).

Needless to say, the activity of the previous and coming weeks is going to have a significant impact on baseball's balance of power. But who was hot, hot, hot, and who got burned? Here's our attempt to add a little light to the early winter heat.

Yankees:With apologies to Spike Lee, the Yankees did the right thing. George swallowed hard, looked Scott Boras in the eye, and opened the vault for the best player in the league. And although you'll never hear anybody say it, they got a big-time bargain. If we've learned anything from big-gun free agents of the past— Reggie Jackson, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire— it's that it's almost impossible to overpay one of the best players in baseball.

The Bernie signing was also important in the Yankee clubhouse, but not for the reason everyone says. Forget that Bernie plays classical guitar while Albert Belle smashes boom boxes. It's because of the reassuring we'll-take-care-of-you message that it sends to future free agents like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Andy Pettitte.

If the Bernie signing was smart shopping, the rest of the Yanks' free agent activity consisted of giving out honoraria. If they had cheaped out on Bernie, the $8 million that they spent on Joe Girardi and Scott Brosius— two guys with more than adequate understudies in Jorge Posada and Mike Lowell— would have smacked of stupidity. Now it merely smacks of largesse. And David Cone's $8 million/one-year deal should keep him smiling for the New York media, but if we were his agent we would have held out for a two-year contract. Why the sudden spate of sanity in the Bronx? Maybe somebody remembered John Wetteland's inexplicable escape after '96, and the fact that it probably cost the Yankees a three-peat. Off-season grade: B+

Mets: The good news is that they quietly retained the services of the game's best pure hitter in Mike Piazza, and a top tier pitcher in Al Leiter. The bad news is that after these moves, they're still treading water. Even with standout performances from Piazza and Leiter, the Mets spent October watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And Bobby Bonilla isn't the answer. Neither is B.J. Surhoff.

The Piazza re-signing makes less sense from his point of view. Sure he got his money, but that was a given. The bottom line is that Shea was unfriendly to him in more ways than one. Flushing's Ty-D-Bowl remains one of the worst hitters' parks in the majors. Mr. P. hit a lusty .346 on the road last year and only .305 at home. In any other park, he's a Triple Crown contender. In Coors Field, he's Babe-fuckin'-Ruth. At Shea, he's third runner-up in a Joey Buttafuoco look-alike contest. B-

Atlanta Braves:They have proven once again why they win 100 games every year and tank it come playoff time. We don't fault John Schuerholz for trading Denny Neagle away— he never took off his windbreaker in October anyway. It's what he got for him that makes no sense. Second baseman Bret Boone has a little pop, but his .311 career on-base percentage is Luis Sojo­esque. And what is Brian Jordan (.339 career on-base percentage) but Marquis Grissom/Deion Sanders/Gerald Williams on steroids: a great athlete who's not a great ballplayer because he doesn't understand the strike zone. And the bullpen remains as empty as Newt Gingrich's head. Are the Braves still good enough to beat the Mets? Can you say Greg Maddux? Will they beat the Astros and the Yankees to win the World Series? Can you spell Mark Grudzielanek? C

Cleveland Indians:Call Kojak. The Indians have perpetrated the winter's greatest theft. It was only a little more than two years ago that calm and rational people were suggesting that Roberto Alomar was the best player in baseball. What's behind last year's slide? Psychology aside, Robby's platoon differential simply flopped. Whereas he's always murdered righties (.339 Avg./.403 OBP/.527 SLG from 1995 to '97), last season he slipped to .271/.335/.382, while hitting an uncharacteristically strong .311 and slugging .509 against lefties. Weird? Yup. Likely to repeat itself? No way. In short, Robby's only 30, still a Gold Glover, still on course for Cooperstown, and still has something to prove. For a very reasonable $8 million per, the Indians made the top of their lineup— Kenny Lofton, Alomar, Jim Thome, Manny Ramirez— the best in baseball (Yanks included). A

Boston Red Sox:Need more proof of the curse of the Bambino? Losing out on Mo, Bernie, Belle, and Fenway (the Patriots move all but seals the deal for a new Beantown ballpark) all in one week. But Mo's defection looks like the classic lose-lose situation. Among the sluggers on the market this year, he sports the biggest home/road differential (.342 at home, .287 on the road between 1995 and '97), so the Angels shouldn't hold their breath for any batting titles out of the Branded One. C-

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